Posted on | July 1, 2010 | 19 Comments
If you read any of the same blogs as I do then you may recall seeing French Milk mentioned on a number of them. The first review I recall seeing was this one by JoAnn of Lakeside Musing last year; I immediately coveted the book, thinking that it looked and sounded enchanting, and ever since I have been tempted by more and more reviews. Finally I succumbed and bought a copy. I started to read it immediately after it arrived, thinking that a charming read set in Paris would alleviate my melancholia following my cat’s death; five pages in and a cat died (quite the graphic description of its dead body; not surprising for a graphic novel, I know, but this also came with illustration of a cat with angel wings and a photograph). I was blindsided and shelved the book until June, when I felt stronger and could move past those two pages. Yesterday I read another book where a pet cat died… I think books should come with public service announcements “beware reading if you are mourning the loss of your feline”; the only book I knew for certain to avoid was Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. In lieu of such specifics on book-jackets, I am providing the PSA: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOUR CAT HAS DIED ONLY A FEW DAYS BEFORE.
Anyway, touchy subject excluding, I greatly enjoyed French Milk. In this graphic travel memoir, Lucy Knisley records the six weeks she and her mother spend in Paris in late 2006/early 2007 to celebrate milestone birthdays for them both (Lucy’s 22nd and her mother’s 50th). Part diary/photo journal/sketchbook, Lucy writes, illustrates and photographs their experience; the overall effect is of a personal, made-at-home document. The travelogue follows Lucy and her mother as they explore and discover Paris, from the apartment -with quirky features- that they have rented in the 5th arrondissement, the oldest area in Paris and one of the more central, situated on the Left Bank. For beginners to the graphic novel medium, French Milk, is accessible with one-panel drawings that don’t overwhelm; think of it as an illustrated novel, if you prefer.
Lucy’s memoir is deeply personal and documents her relationship with her mother as they share this once-in-a-lifetime experience; the conflict between making the most of such a wonderful opportunity and missing her boyfriend, John; her struggle to come to terms with the inevitability of adulthood. On the cusp of graduating from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few months later and in the process of applying to the Center of Cartoon Studies, Lucy faces her fears of financial responsibility, of failure and of the inability to find employment after her studies and the less-immediate terror of what lies beyond; as a young woman in her late twenties I empathise with the emotions Lucy experienced in her early ones. The journal encapsulates that transition between adolescence and adulthood, the resistance it causes, and the stark reminder of all we still have to achieve and those things we have not that our birthdays often serve as; at times self-indulgent, it is recognisably realistic. Knisley encapsulates her experience in minute detail so that the reader begins to feel that they are there sharing the apartment with her and her mother (along with other occasional visitors) and experiencing Paris as she experienced it.
As an artist, Lucy visits and journals about most of the Parisian museums, art galleries and exhibitions but she and her mother also shop and do an abundance of eating; the title, French Milk, refers to the author’s love for the distinctive creamy milk only available in France. As a foodie, I loved the descriptions and illustrations of rich food, especially of the Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons (even though Knisley refers to them as “cookies”, I recognised the drawings of one of my preferred indulgences). Highlights for me were the visits made to two Paris landmarks beloved to me: Shakespeare & Co. for their books and Café Angelina for their famous hot chocolate; moreover, I enjoyed the section spent visiting Oscar Wilde’s grave, which epitomised Lucy’s passionate nature.
Having visited Paris for the first time one winter, I was nostalgic for that visit and that time (I was just a year older than Lucy, at the same stage in my academic career). Knisley’s memoir of travel, food, art, and life has intensified my desire to revisit; when I do, I will ensure that I pack French Milk to reread and to use as a creative and personal guidebook.